Saturday, February 25, 2012

Target: Iran

"The last threats came and went/And this is the way that wars are played."
                                                                                             - Against Me!
                                                                                              "Cliche Guevara"

The mainstream media are beating the war drums again. This time they have their cross-hairs focused on Iran. Anybody else experiencing a sense of déjà vu, yet?

If we are to accept the prevailing wisdom of contemporary news reports, Iran is well on its way to developing a nuclear weapon and this poses a grave threat not only to Israel and the United States, but to the entire globe. So far, much of the media coverage has been eerily similar to that of the run-up to the Iraq war. One would be justified in fearing the U.S. is on the verge of once again rushing into another ill-conceived war based on trumped-up charges.

As the New York Times’ Scott Shane reported Wednesday in a news analysis story, “Echoes of the period leading up to the Iraq war in 2003 are unmistakable, igniting a familiar debate over whether journalists are overstating Iran’s progress toward a bomb.”1

And the media are not the only ones beating the war drums. The leading Republican presidential candidates, apparently taking a page out of John “Bomb, bomb, bomb Iran” McCain’s playbook, are also resorting to hawkish, militaristic language. Truthdig’s Robert Scheer highlights, not only the GOP’s unceasing warmongering, but also the party’s seeming inability to wage war effectively in his latest column.

“Here we go again,” Scheer writes. “With the economy showing faint signs of life and their positions on the social issues alienating most moderates, the leading Republican candidates, with the exception of Ron Paul, have returned to the elixir of warmongering to once again sway the gullible masses.”2    

Yet, perhaps most disconcerting, this rhetoric seems to be working. The aforementioned Times article points to a recent Pew Research Poll in which 58 percent of respondents said the U.S. should “use military force, if necessary, to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons.” (Thirty percent answered “no.”)

Am I the only one who remembers what happened the last time America went down this road? Nearly 4,500 U.S. soldiers have died in Iraq, a war that from the beginning was based on lies and false intelligence. (And there exists substantial evidence to indicate such intelligence was knowingly false.)

Once again, there are detractors to the “Iran-is-developing-a-nuclear-weapon” argument. A “Media Advisory” report by the watchdog group FAIR (Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting) casts doubt on the recent findings by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) as well as the way those findings have been distorted by the corporate press. According to the FAIR report (“Iran, Nukes and the Failure of Skepticism,” 11/16/11), the notion that Iran is close to developing nuclear capabilities is not, in fact, the conclusion the IAEA arrived at.

The media advisory states:

The IAEA report stresses concern over allegations over past [Iranian] activities; very little of the report is dedicated to research that could be [described] as ongoing. Indeed, the media is focusing primarily on the IAEA’s speculation about what might be ongoing research that could be related to a military program.3 (Italics in the original.)

Yet, one is not likely to find such a precise, accurate summary of the report from the mainstream TV and print media. Instead, we get distorted headlines like the one the FAIR report points to—a USA Today headline that reads, “UN Agency Issues Red Alert Over Iran’s Secret Nuke Program.” Can you say, propaganda, anyone?

“In a democratic society,” writes author and media analyst Norman Solomon in his book, War Made Easy: How Presidents and Pundits Keep Spinning Us to Death, “persistent agenda-building is necessary to gain and retain public support for a war.”4

Published in 2005 (and adapted into a documentary film shortly thereafter), Solomon’s book examines how the media and White House propaganda which lead to the war in Iraq was strikingly similar to warmongering campaigns for the invasions of Vietnam, Cambodia and the first Gulf War. Solomon (who is currently running for Congress) carefully debunks popular war-rationales such as “This is a necessary battle in the war on terrorism,”; “Our soldiers are heroes, theirs are inhuman”; “If this war is wrong, the media will tell us”; and the overused, “This guy is a modern day Hitler.”

One routine media tactic, Solomon explains, is to paint the war as something inexplicably thrust onto presidents and war-makers. This is part of the concept of America as the policeman of the globe, as if we are the only nation that can efficiently shoulder the burden of keeping the world “safe for democracy.” He writes:

A recurring media motif is to dwell on painful aspects of wielding power, such as the reported anguish of shouldering a heavy burden that requires making life-or-death decisions as commander in chief. Presidents have encouraged such media coverage, which sometimes cues the public to extend more empathy toward the man who gives the orders to drop bombs than toward the people underneath those bombs. (97-98)

To wit, while current news reports on Iran emphasize the potential threat of the country’s supposed nuclear program, very few take into account the equally ominous threats directed at Iran by Israel and the United States. Indeed, has any reporter stopped to consider Iran may be attempting to acquire nuclear weapons in order to defend itself from an upcoming Israeli airstrike? Yet, despite their claims to “objectivity,” the media are unwilling to explore such nuanced debates as to who the real aggressor in this new-age Cold War is.

As a result, too many corporate news outlets are more concerned with how fast the bombs fall, and not whether they should be dropped at all.

1.      Shane, Scott. “In Din Over Iran, Rattling Sabers Echo.” New York Times 22 Feb. 2012,
New England ed.: A1+. Print.

2.      Scheer, Robert. “The Gang that Couldn’t Bomb Straight.” Feb. 2012. Web.
23 Feb. 2012.

3.      “Iran, Nukes and the Failure of Skepticism.” Nov. 2011. Web. 23 Feb. 2012.

4.      Solomon, Norman. War Made Easy: How Presidents and Pundits Keep Spinning us to Death. 
           Hoboken: John Wiley & Sons, 2005. Print.


Tuesday, February 21, 2012

A Rebellion Whose Time Has Come

Occupy Maine protesters have left Portland’s Lincoln Park, after losing a court battle to maintain their presence in the area. The Cumberland County Superior Court judge invoked the “time, place, manner” restriction, claiming city officials do have the right to place a reasonable limit on certain forms of free speech and assembly. In other words, you have the right to free speech until the Powers That Be revoke that right.

But the aim of this piece is not to dissect or decry the ruling. It was pretty clear the encampment was not meant to last. This post is about looking to the future of Occupy Wall Street, and focusing on the next step.

And there will be a next step. The protesters are all committed to continuing the movement. As one Occupier states in the most recent edition of Portland’s locally-produced “Occupy Maine TV,” contrary to the dismissals of some detractors, the movement was never about “camping.”

“This was never about taking the park for an indefinite period of time,” he says in the clip. “This was about drawing attention to necessary issues. We’ve done that. It’s in the national mind. It’s in the local mind…So we don’t need to squabble about a piece of park.”

The episode (the fourth in what protester-producers hope will become an ongoing form of “citizen media”) also contains some startling statistics. According to co-host Regis Tremblay, the wealthiest one percent of Americans has enjoyed income growth of 360 percent over the past 40 years. Income for the remaining 99 percent, however, has stayed flat. He goes on to note the astronomical drop in corporate tax as a percentage of federal revenue--down from 32.1 percent in 1952 to about eight percent in 2011.

“This is not class warfare,” Tremblay says. “This is common sense.”     

According to French philosopher Albert Camus, rebellion is the “true dimension of man.” He views rebellion as the one single act a person can carry out that affirms the individual’s common humanity. In his book-length essay, The Rebel, Camus envisions a rebel as “a slave who has taken orders all his life [and] suddenly decides he cannot obey some new command.”

As Camus explains, in every act of rebellion the rebel simultaneously says both “No,” and “Yes.” He says “no” to his current treatment—the slave, again, who can finally no longer tolerate his life under the lash. Yet, by affirming that there is something within him worth preserving—worth fighting to free—the rebel also says “yes.” Thus, rebellion is both an act of negation, and the ultimate affirmation of human values.

He writes: “In every act of rebellion, the rebel simultaneously experiences a feeling of revulsion at the infringement of his rights and a complete and spontaneous loyalty to certain aspects of himself. Thus he implicitly brings into play a standard of values so far from being gratuitous that he is prepared to support it no matter what the risks.”

As a progenitor of the existentialist philosophy of “the absurd,” Camus believed life is pointless. There is, according to Camus, no ulterior meaning to existence, and we as individuals are powerless to influence our own fate. The “absurd” views life as just that—a silly, pointless game. Yet we have a choice in how we live. Even when the odd are clearly stacked against us, Camus argues, we have a moral duty to persevere and fight back, regardless of our chances of success or survival. He writes:

The rebel himself wants to be “all”—to identify himself completely with this good of which he has suddenly become aware and by which he wants to be personally recognized and acknowledged—or “nothing”; in other words, to be completely destroyed by the force that dominates him. As a last resort, he is willing to accept the final defeat, which is death, rather than be deprived of the personal sacrament that he would call, for example, freedom. Better to die on one’s feet than to live on one’s knees.

And that is exactly the attitude necessary if we are, in fact, to sustain this revolution. As one protester’s sign says, “You cannot evict an idea whose time has come.” Working-class citizens of the world, unite.

Editor's note: Be sure to join members of Occupy Maine for a rally in Portland's Monument Square, Wednesday, Feb. 22, at 4:00 p.m. And check out Occupy Maine's website for additional upcoming events. 

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Super Bowled (Sports as the Opium of the Masses)

This Sunday is “Super Bowl Sunday,” but do not expect me to tune in.

I have never watched a Super Bowl (or any football game, for that matter) in my life, and I do not plan to start any time soon. I enjoy a great number of things in life—good books, vinyl records, Gibson guitars, and a strong cup of coffee, to name just a handful—but sports of any kind have never been amongst them. Indeed, if I may update Marx’s famous quote, it is no longer religion, but commercial sports entertainment that is today, “the opium of the masses.”

Football, like most forms of low-brow, commercial entertainment, is the nation’s drug of choice. And when football season ends, addicts turn to basketball, baseball, American Idol and Jersey Shore for their next fix. Fans invest their emotional energy into these mindless, baser distractions, becoming intimately wrapped-up in the lives of the players, contestants or characters. They act as though they actually know these people—as if players like Tom Brady or Tim Tebow are their friends. They are like Mildred in Ray Bradbury’s classic, Fahrenheit 451, who spends her days watching wall-sized displays of interactive “reality” TV. Mildred even refers to the characters on these shows as her “family.”

As psychology professor David Barash writes in an editorial for The Chronicle of Higher Education (“The Roar of the Crowd,” 3/20/2009) the problem with “root, root, rotting,” for the “home team” is “such things are normally done by pigs in the mud, or seedlings lacking a firm grip on reality—fine for them, but I am not at all sure this is something that human beings should do.”

In recounting Americans’ collective lamentation of the 2009 baseball strike which threatened to deprive viewers, pundits and team managers of anything more productive to do with their summer, Barash asks:

Was it really such a disaster? Or is it a disaster that our current paragons have been revealed to be hormonally enhanced and ethically challenged? ...Is life so pale, dull, and unsatisfying that it must be experienced vicariously in order to be savored? You might try reading a book, talking with your family, going for a walk, wrestling with the dog, listening to some music, smelling a flower, making love.

Even more perplexing than the appeal of the inane and utterly insignificant game itself, are the legions of viewers who, like me, have no interest in football itself, but tune in to the “Big Game” purely for the commercials. These viewers, so deeply indoctrinated in consumer society, are the same Americans who line-up in hordes at big-box stores for “Black Friday” bargains the day after Thanksgiving. And this is no coincidence—Super Bowl sponsors pay $3.5 million for 30 seconds of commercial time to get you to drink Coca-Cola, drive a Honda, or sign-up for the investor service, E-Trade.

Last year’s Super Bowl drew approximately 111 million viewers according to the Nielsen ratings company—a new record for the most-watched television program of all time.

Compare that statistic with the current sad state of Americans’ reading habits. A comprehensive study by the National Endowment for the Arts found “startling declines” in “how much and how well” Americans read. According to the 2007 study, 80 percent of U.S. families did not buy or read a book that year. Forty-two percent of college graduates never read another book after college, and neither do one-third of high-school graduates. And then there are those who are incapable of reading. Seven million American adults are illiterate, while 30 million can’t read a simple sentence.

Another 27 million possess such poor reading skills they are unable to complete a job application. (Conversely, many “professional” job ads are written by grammatically-challenged H.R. managers with such limited writing abilities, they are often unclear to job-seekers who actually can read well.)

 “Take sports—that’s another example of the indoctrination system in my view,” says Noam Chomsky in the documentary film, Manufacturing Consent. “…It offers people something to pay attention to that’s of no importance. That keeps them from worrying about…things in their lives that they actually might do something about.”

Like the characters in Bradbury’s aforementioned dystopia, sports addicts flock restlessly from one televised distraction to the next, uninterested in pressing social, political or environmental concerns. They fail to realize that democracy—unlike football, baseball, or the like—is not a spectator sport.

So, do not ask me what I thought of The Game, on Monday. I intend to stay as far away from the entire affair as possible.